E.C. Ball's Gift To A Frowning World

by Bob Moses

It's now a commonplace that geography is destiny. If stolid mountains and excitable weather can mock mere politics and war, then surely they can imbue a man with an interior geography, a sense of his own purpose and place. E.C. Ball was a man of a particular place, a singer and songwriter from the Appalachian hills around Rugby, Virginia. A voice this fiercely independent, warm, good-humored and devout could spring from no other soil. Producer, musician and archivist Nathan Salsburg assembled a like-minded group of artists, mostly from Louisville and nearby, to pay tribute to E.C. Ball with Face A Frowning World: An E.C. Ball Memorial Album.

Estil Cortez Ball and his wife Orna were recorded many times, first by John Lomax in 1937, then by his son Alan in 1941 and 1959, and then by a number of authenticity seekers during the folk revival. Perhaps the most widely distributed commercial release was a Rounder recording from 1995 that included "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations." It was that song's evocation of God's wrath as described in the book of Revelations that first froze Nathan in his tracks and led to this contemporary presentation of Ball's songs. (Hear that Alan Lomax recording of "Tribulations" in our playlist, above). He convened an assortment of singers centered around the Louisville group Health and Happiness Family Gospel Band, with contributions from Jon Langford, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Jolie Holland, Uncle Earl's Rayna Gellert, Michael Hurley, and his own fine guitar playing and accomplished finger picking. Nathan describes the set as "fairly non-standard interpretations" but perhaps a standard interpretation isn't possible for such a non-standard repertory.

Ball's songbook included country gospel, familiar hymns, centuries-old folk songs, comedy numbers, eccentric guitar instrumentals (Ball was a strikingly original guitar player), and rural blues. Nathan produced beautifully-recorded performances filled with Ball's intention and the interpreter's personality: Langford is as merry a heathen as will ever sing "When I Get Home I'm Gonna Be Satisfied." If his boisterous singing awaits, I hope there's a honky tonk on the ground floor of Heaven's golden mansion. The version of "Tribulations," sweetly and movingly sung by Joe Manning and Glen Dentinger, captures the bone-chilling fear and yearning for release from earthly worries that gives country gospel (and evangelical sermonizing) its haunting power.
E.C. and OrnaE.C. and Orna
Music clings to the Appalachian ridges and hollows like the fog, as Ball's vast and varied work reflects. Folk tunes from the English and Scot-Irish settlers, shape-note singing and sacred harp, community singing schools, and pentecostal, evangelical and holiness churches of every stripe all contribute to mountain-song traditions even older than the African-American gospel that may be more familiar to urban ears. Face a Frowning World draws most of its material from Ball's sacred songs, and that honors the central importance of the spiritual in the region's music, and Ball's own personal mission.

In the album's notes, Nathan doesn't shy away from the apparent contradiction of mostly non-believers performing deeply committed music. I asked him if he thought E.C would view that as a failure. "I don't think E.C. would have felt like his music failed," he said, "but that, perhaps, my heart had been hardened to Jesus, and that the failure to soften it - through music or prayer or bible study - was mine. I'd be fine with that." With his thoughtful selection and production, Nathan's Face A Frowning World encourages us to encounter E.C. Ball's music on its own terms, whatever historical, geographical, spiritual or secular reference you bring to it.

(Nathan notes that "As E.C. and Orna Ball left no heirs, royalties from the sale of this album will be donated to the Blue Ridge Institute, which documents, preserves, and promotes the folkways of the people living in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains.")

E.C. Ball: "The Early Bird Always Gets the Worm"

Face A Frowning World: An E.C. Ball Memorial Album Track List and Source Notes by Nathan Salsburg

01. INTRODUCTION by E.C. Ball.
Recorded by Alan Lomax at E.C. and Orna’s home in Rugby, Virginia, August 1959. Previously unreleased. Used courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

02. HE’S MY GOD. Sung by Dave Bird
Original on “E.C. Ball and the Friendly Gospel Singers,” 1967 (County Records). Out of print.

03. JOHN THE BAPTIST. Sung by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Original on “E.C. Ball,” 1972. Reissued on CD in 1996 as “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.” (Rounder).

04. JENNY JENKINS. Sung by the Handsome Family
Several original versions recorded by John A. Lomax (1937), Alan Lomax (1941 and 1959), and John Cohen (1965). Those of Lomax the elder and Cohen are currently in print on, respectively, “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years, 1937-1975,” 1999 (Copper Creek) and the CD reissue/expansion of Cohen’s “High Atmosphere” compilation, 1974 / 1995 (Rounder).

05. WARFARE. Sung by Joe Manning
Original on “High Atmosphere” and “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years.”

06. PLAIN OLD COUNTRY LAD. Sung by Pokey LaFarge
Original on E.C. and Orna’s “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home,” 1976 (Rounder). Out of print.

07. LORD I WANT MORE RELIGION. Sung by Rayna Gellert
Original unreleased. Home recording made by E.C. in 1970.

08. THE EARLY BIRD ALWAYS GETS THE WORM. Sung by Michael Hurley
Original on “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.”

09. WHEN I GET HOME I’M GONNA BE SATISFIED. Sung by Jon Langford
Original on “White Spirituals” LP in the Southern Folk Heritage Series, 1959 (Atlantic); reissued in “Sounds of the South” box-set, 1993. Both out of print.

10. TRIBULATIONS. Sung by Joe Manning and Glen Dentinger
Original versions on “White Spirituals”; “Sounds of the South”; and volume five in the Southern Journey series, “Deep South… Sacred and Sinful,” 1960 (Prestige). Reissued on “Southern Journey #6: Sheep, Sheep, Don’cha Know the Road” in the Alan Lomax Collection CD series, 1997 (Rounder). Only version currently in print is on “E.C. Ball and Orna: Through the Years.”

11. ONE DAY I WILL. Sung by Nathan Salsburg
Original on “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home.”

12. CABIN ON THE HILL. Sung by Catherine Irwin
Original on “White Spirituals” and in “Sounds of the South.”

13. WHEN I CAN READ MY TITLES CLEAR. Sung by Glen Dentinger
Original on “E.C. Ball with Orna Ball.”

14. BEAUTIFUL STAR OF BETHLEHEM. Sung by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Dave Bird, and Catherine Irwin
Original on “E.C. Ball and the Friendly Gospel Singers.”

15. FATHERS HAVE A HOME SWEET HOME. Sung by Jan Bell, Jolie Holland, and Samantha Parton
Original on “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home.”

16. JUBILEE. Sung by the Sandpaper Dolls
Original on “Fathers Have A Home Sweet Home.”

Photos by Blanton Owen and Roddy Moore. Used courtesy of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia
"Tribulations" performed by E.C Ball and Lacey Richardson, "When I Get Home I'm Gonna Be Satisfied" performed by E.C Ball, and "Poor Ellen Smith" as recorded by Alan Lomax on August 31, 1959, used by permission of the Association for Cultural Equity.

Watch & Listen

Two tracks from the upcoming Tompkins Square release, Face a Frowning World: An E.C Ball Memorial Album and three recordings of E.C. Ball himself, from a 1959 session by Alan Lomax, including his haunting "Tribulations."

Buy

Face a Frowning World